Brief History of USAF Organizational Emblems

The War Department on 18 November 1919 approved the emblems of 45 aero squadrons that served in France during World War I. Some of these, slightly modified, are still in use today. In 1923, it issued the first set of regulations addressing unit insignia. The rules were clear: be simple, have some historical angle, tell a picture-story significant to the unit, and remain dignified and in good taste.

During WW II, the number of emblems ballooned, and not all were being officially approved. To encourage approval, Army Air Forces Letter 35-46 (precursor of AFR 900-3) was issued on 10 September 1945, establishing policies and procedures for designing and submitting emblems for approval and regulating their use.

One of the most recognized and plentiful emblems of WW II was that for HQ Army Air Forces--a blue disc with a winged star containing a red roundel--approved by Hap Arnold in early 1942 and initially worn by all Army Air Forces personnel. A year later, emblems were authorized for each overseas air force, and wear of the winged star was limited to stateside personnel. On 25 June 1943, insignia were authorized for personnel in all air forces, not just those overseas, so the default patch for all other personnel was what had become known as the Hap Arnold emblem--the winged star. By the summer of 1945, arcs were being authorized for wear above that patch, each displaying the name or initials of the various organizations, commands mostly, that were not air forces. The first seven were approved on 28 July 1945. By the end of the year there were 15, and more were added during 1946.

All these unit, command, and headquarters patches continued to be worn after the U.S. Air Force was created in 1947, but by 1950 the “Arnold and arcs” patches were being replaced by unique emblems. In 1955, unit emblems were addressed by AFR 900-3 and under the purview of the Personnel Services Division of HQ USAF. This new regulation placed all organizational emblems in one of two categories: “Heraldic” - for groups and above (placed on shields, like coats of arms); and “Pictorial” - for squadrons and certain flights (of any shape except the heraldic shield). Guidance was straightforward: “Designs should be original; avoid offending the Air Force, federal agencies, nations, state, or religious bodies; and include a minimum number of colors. They must also be in good taste and simple.” Specifically prohibited were emblems showing a specific type of aircraft or equipment; imitating other designs like flags, religious symbols, and medals; displaying symbols of a morbid nature or games of chance; or containing numerals or geographical designations. These rules applied only for new emblems; those approved previously could still be used, but if any change was made, full compliance with current rules was required.

In 1959, a revision to the reg mandated principal charges face dexter (viewer’s left); prohibited display of an emblem approved for any other USAF organization; and encouraged use of the Air Force colors, ultramarine blue and golden yellow. The 1964 reg prohibited cartoon characters on heraldic emblems and established a limit of three issue patches to each individual. Beginning in 1966, all new unit-level emblems were placed on discs, and mottoes were limited to no more than 36 letters, with English preferred over Latin or other languages, but not mandatory. And 1966 is when the Air Force began discouraging contests to design unit emblems.

Patches in subdued colors were first mentioned in the 1980 edition of AFR 35-10, stating that The Institute of Heraldry provides suggested subdued color conversions for all emblems approved after 1 January 1979. Wear of subdued insignia on fatigues became mandatory in 1983. This is the same year that three inches became the preferred size for all patches, not just those of the MACOMs. Patch locations on uniforms varied over the years.

The 1981 regulation stated, “If only one scroll is used, it will contain the unit designation and always appear on the bottom of the disc. If two scrolls are used, the unit designation may be reflected on either the top or bottom scroll with the motto appearing on the other. And the limitation of 36 letters now included spaces. In 1985, that number was reduced to 24 for squadrons only. And specific landmarks made the list of prohibited design elements.

The big change came on 21 July 1994 with AFI 84-101, General McPeak’s baby, formalizing what had been implemented during the several preceding years by message traffic--the first of which was in December 1990, stating: “Effective immediately, all changes to organizational emblems of, and new emblem requests for, flying, missile, and space units require CSAF approval.” Among his changes were: 1. A unit emblem will always have a lower scroll displaying the designation; if the emblem includes a motto, it will be displayed on an upper scroll; 2. Emblems will use accepted heraldic symbols or stylized elements, not to exceed three in number; and 3. The color of scrolls, inscriptions, and edges is stipulated to conform to a precise standard. No. 2 had the greatest impact.

During the last half of the 20th century, what had initially been worn just by aviators was being seen across the spectrum of uniforms. As one writer put it in the early 1990s, “From the flight-line to the dormitory; from the dining hall to a missile silo: Patches are everywhere.” As uniforms have changed in recent decades, so have the patches. What used to be large and colorful are now trending smaller and more subdued. The most recent change was the debut in 2018 of the Operational Camouflage Pattern for subdued patches. Ever so gradually, it seems patches in vivid colors are becoming anachronisms. But Air Force members refuse to let them disappear. That’s because “Patches are more than color and thread,” according to the director at The Institute Of Heraldry, the Army institution that reviews and okays every Air Force emblem before it is officially approved. Disappear? Not likely.

In 1966, there were 6,000 unit emblems on file in the heraldic section of the Air Force Military Personnel Center at Randolph AFB. In 1984, the heraldic program was transferred to what is now the Air Force Historical Research Agency (AFHRA) at Maxwell AFB, and by 1991 the number of emblem records had climbed to more than 9,000--and that was just the emblems approved for flying units! Now, 30 years later, it has been estimated that the total number of officially approved USAF emblems is in the neighborhood of 100,000. And each and every one of them silently tells a story. “More than color and thread” indeed! Patches are, in fact, “pieces of history.” --G.W.O.

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